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First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card September 27, 2009

Why Union Leaders Are Trying to Destroy Themselves

Most Americans don't belong to unions. It happens that I do -- Hollywood is a closed union shop, and in order to be hired to write screenplays one has to be a member of the Writers Guild.

They take a small percentage of every screenwriting check I receive -- and it's worth every penny. Even though at times the Writers Guild seems to be run by short-sighted, squabbling, territorial chimps, we have ample proof that without the union, screenwriters would be treated even worse than they already are.

My first exposure to unions, however, came when I was a young child, growing up in California. My uncle Gordon was employed by United Airlines.

My mother told us children about Uncle Gordon's early days working as a union mechanic. The shop steward came to him one day and told him to slow down. "Stop working so hard."

"I'm not working all that hard," said Gordon. "I'm just doing the job they pay me for."

"You're making all the other guys look bad," said the steward.

"Then why don't they just keep at it, the way I do? It wouldn't kill them."

"If everybody worked like you do," said the steward, "management would realize they don't actually need all these workers on this crew. Somebody would lose his job. And do you know who that would be?"

"The one who actually delivers a day's work for a day's pay?"

"You aren't thinking like a union man," said the steward.

Needless to say, my uncle moved as quickly as possible to a non-unionized position at United.

This was what I was taught to think of unions: The union makes a deal with management, and from then on, you work for the union, not for the people who pay you. The union isn't about doing good work, it's about squeezing out of management the maximum number of jobs for the maximum wage with a minimum of effort.

I was taught that this was a moral issue, a matter of honesty; the union forces workers to cheat the company that is paying them, and good people don't cheat.

Years later, a friend of mine apprenticed as an electrician. He showed up at the job site -- a big project -- eager to start learning his job.

What he learned was that for a solid week, they did almost nothing. Oh, they walked around and moved wire from one place to another and opened toolboxes, closed them, and opened them somewhere else. But they actually accomplished so little that it was laughable.

Finally my friend asked, "When do we start work?"

They just ignored him at first. Finally someone explained. The contractor had scheduled the job for a certain number of days. The union electricians were going to make sure that they got paid for every one of those days.

"If we showed them we could do a job this size in three days, next time they'll hire us for three days and that's all we'll get paid for and then we'll be out of work," one electrician explained to him.

"But aren't we cheating them?"

"They'll get their wiring installed as fast as they asked for," said the electrician. "But you don't have to be there if you don't want."

My friend didn't want. Now he's a webwright and IT manager and he puts in a day's work for a day's pay.

Here in Greensboro, my wife was working as a volunteer in one of the local schools when the supply closet she was using was scheduled to be painted.

The painter showed up and spread a lot of tarps around. The next day, some paint cans and rollers and brushes and a sander and other equipment showed up. Some spots on the wall were even sanded.

The progress on the room was glacial. Ancient Maya temples were covered with jungle vines faster than this room was painted. It took three weeks to paint that storage closet.

Now, I grew up in the home of a painter. My dad painted large signs with intricate lettering and logos; he painted medical transport helicopters; he painted whole outside walls of buildings in a small fraction of the time this guy took to paint that closet.

Just from working with my dad I knew how to do the job, and do it right, in no more than a week, including all the paint-drying time.

The union workers my uncle worked with were clearly defrauding United Airlines, driving up the price of tickets that passengers paid. Those electricians my friend apprenticed with were cheating the company that was paying for the building -- the costs would be passed on to the people using the building later. That infinitely slow closet-painting job came out of taxpayers' money.

So by this accounting, unions impose a needless cost on the public through lack of productivity and inflated prices. They're a drag on the economy.

Oops. That's not the whole story. These are anecdotes about what happens when unions are ascendant. Triumphant. At the end of the process.

Anybody who knows the history of capitalism and industry in American knows that labor unions were essential to making this country a good place for decent people to live.

The laws of competition and of supply and demand are inexorable. In the days before labor unions, when a highly competitive industry depended on a combination of resources and easily-trained labor, the resources were quickly spoken for, so the competition focused on labor costs.

The company that paid its workers the least would be able to sell its products more cheaply than the companies that paid their workers better.

Competitors had no choice but to cut wages or get out of the game.

The result was that wages sank lower and lower, while working hours rose higher and higher. Exhausted workers made mistakes that killed or crippled them -- but there were always more workers desperate to take their place. It was a heartless enterprise.

When the workers first attempted to organize, striking against this company or that, the company would simply bring in "scabs" -- new workers so desperate for jobs that they would cross the picket lines.

So the striking workers would attempt to stop the line-crossers by force; or, fearing such action, the company would bring in security forces and, sometimes, government troops to protect the company's right to hire whomever they wanted.

Meanwhile, many companies found they could cut their costs even more by building crummy little houses for their workers, and then make them buy all their food from company stores.

They got the system so finely tuned that every week, the workers would be just a little more in debt to the company. So they couldn't quit, they couldn't break even, and they couldn't live on what they made.

If both parents and all the children in a family are working at the best available jobs and they still don't bring home enough money to pay rent and keep from starving, what else can they do but strike?

They're going to die anyway -- they might as well die fighting for better pay and safer working conditions.

Were the owners evil? Some, yes -- but any company that tried to do better would soon find itself undersold by the companies that squeezed more work out of their labor force, for less pay.

And if a group of companies got together to end the competition by fixing prices at a level high enough that they could afford to pay their workers a living wage (though this was almost never the motive for forming such a cartel), then that was a conspiracy against the public, and trust-busters like Teddy Roosevelt put a stop to that!

Such was the situation back at the turn of the twentieth century -- the era when company owners, who paid no income tax, were building their faux European mansions as "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island. It's worth visiting there just to see the wretched excess (and hideous taste) of people who functioned as feudal lords -- with little sense of chivalry or noblesse oblige.

(Only a handful lived like John D. Rockefeller, giving to charity constantly from the first dollar they made.)

What finally turned the tide was a combination of things. As with the civil rights movement, there was an element of public outrage against the cruel treatment of workers, spurring the government to force reform.

There were also enlightened examples like the paternalistic Henry Ford and others, who paid better wages on the theory that their workers would be more productive if they could afford to buy the things they made.

The major force for change, however, was the effort by union leaders to get elected officials to see the workers as voters. When workers went to the polls and voted as a bloc for candidates who pledged to enact the labor platform, legislatures and Congress sat up and took notice.

The long struggle finally settled down in the pattern we saw in the fifties and sixties. Protected now by federal and state laws, industry-wide unions virtually dictated terms to the companies.

In the auto industry, the union would decide which of the big car companies would be struck at contract negotiation time. And in an era when American cars were the only cars Americans could buy, the companies caved in, raised wages and benefits, and then raised prices to pay for them.

But human nature doesn't change. The same desire for a monopoly on power infected union leadership; organized crime got involved and dipped into some union pension funds and controlled some union elections; and, once the union leadership knew they were in the driver's seat, we got the pattern of low productivity and job inflation that my uncle and my friend and my wife ran into.

In my union, this is not really a problem. There are still too many union writers chasing the same jobs -- if you don't produce acceptable work, you get paid, but you don't get hired for the next job. Management still has options.

But in a state like, say, California, where teachers are unionized, there is nothing taxpayers can do to control practices that are part of the ruin of the education system.

I've known teachers in California schools who have despaired as they saw how impossible it was to fire incompetent or even dangerous teachers before they did something spectacular enough to make the news.

What outrages many union members is the way union leaders get involved in politics. How many angry union members have watched their dues get used in support of candidates they despise?

It was considered almost a revolution when Ronald Reagan got a significant percentage of union votes in industrial states.

In a global economy, however, the power of the monopoly industrial unions was finally broken. Either management outsourced the jobs overseas, or foreign car companies that didn't have ruinously expensive union contracts (and, too often, underperforming workers) captured much of the American car companies' domestic market share.

As the industrial unions' importance faded, however, the union leadership -- and mentality -- shifted over to the public sector. Government workers and teachers were unionized, and these unions are even more firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party than the industrial unions ever were.

If you aren't an outspoken radical Leftist, don't bother running for office in an American teachers union. If you were a teacher who thought George W. Bush was a good president, you had to keep your head down. And if you worship Obama and put your politics into the classroom, you'll have the full support of the union -- nobody is going to touch you.

Yet before the teachers organized and struck against the public, they were the most underpaid of professionals, completely at the mercy of school administrators.

Wherever the power of unions is broken, management goes back to its bad old ways, because the market forces continue to force companies to press wages downward and working hours upward. (If you have any doubt of this, look how companies treat their own middle management.)

But where unions are in power, they always follow the same pattern: Even after they have won decent treatment, they continue to exist ... and, to justify their existence, fight for "rights" that are destructive of their employers and which lead, inevitably, to the union making their own industry noncompetitive.

In the long run, unions destroy themselves.

But union leadership never sees it that way. They simply do whatever it takes to advance what they see as the union cause. And what is the union cause?

To maintain the current union leadership in power.

That's right. Just as management in big corporations inevitably acts to advance the interests of management instead of the interests of the stockholders, so also union leadership acts to advance the interests of union leaders at the expense of the union workers.

That's what replacing the secret ballot in union elections with check-off cards is all about.

The secret ballot was a hard-won right for workers. Before that, management could fire or otherwise punish any workers who voted to unionize the company. The secret ballot protected workers from management.

So why are union leaders so passionately eager to eliminate it? Because they have already won -- they've crushed management. All the laws, the whole force of government, are on the side of the unions, and management is whipped.

So now the secret ballot only serves to protect the workers from union leaders, and that's why they want it eliminated. They're not for the workers, they're against the workers.

Union leaders only want this check-off card because in secret ballots, workers have been rejecting unionization too often. And the only reason check-off cards will help union leaders is because, by exposing who opposes unionization, it allows unions to persecute workers who would rather not have a union.

So when the Democrats in Congress support the check-off card, it is not because they care about workers, it's because they care about the union leadership. The workers aren't safe Democratic voters any more -- but the union leaders are an absolutely reliable source of campaign funds.

It has become a conspiracy of Democrats in Congress and union leaders against the freedom of workers -- exactly the way there used to be a conspiracy of Republicans in Congress and business leaders to keep workers from getting any rights.

The little guy always ends up the loser in these things -- because human nature doesn't change!

Government intervened to protect workers' right to organize; now government needs to intervene to protect workers' right not to organize if they don't want to. The intervention is simple: Protect the secret ballot and reject the conspiracy of union leadership to intimidate and pressure noncompliant workers.

But that's the whole problem with the Left today (just as it was a problem with the Right half a century ago). Having won great victories in the past, current movement leaders keep pushing in the same direction, even though all the socially useful goals have been won, and now further movement in that direction is destructive of the public and of the movement itself.

Feminism won every rational right, but the movement leadership, captured by the most extreme (and out of touch with most women) faction, kept demanding more and more things that most women didn't want -- like virtual infanticide in the name of abortion, and economically meaningless "equal pay" for jobs that were in no way equivalent. Then they destroyed their own credibility by attacking the victims of Bill Clinton's sexual harassment and the movement is effectively over.

Gay liberation won every rational right. Their triumph was complete. But in order to keep the "movement" alive, the extremist leadership demanded a "right to marry" that has no rational basis and confers no advantage that can be conferred by law. Indeed, if gay marriage -- and the inevitable indoctrination of children in the schools -- become the law of the land, it will certainly provoke a widespread counterreaction that will almost certainly cause the movement to lose ground they already won. Anyone who reads history knows that this is the inevitable pattern.

The Right behaved exactly the same way with the anti-Communist movement of the forties and fifties. There really were Communists, and during the Depression thousand of American Leftists really were involved in a Moscow-directed movement, as witnessed by their ridiculous and shameful embrace of Hitler when Stalin made his pact with the Nazis in 1939. There really were spies -- Alger Hiss was guilty, and thousands lost their lives from Communists who had infiltrated Western (including American) intelligence services.

But, having ridden the anti-Communist wave to power, the Right just couldn't recognize when enough was enough. Communism no longer posed any danger of taking over the United States, and most people recognized that -- and, just as NOW broke its back by protecting Bill Clinton's indefensible behavior against women, McCarthy broke the back of anti-Communism by going against the Army.

Nobody learns from history -- isn't that sad? Now it's the extreme Left (the only kind that seems to exist any more) that behaves exactly like the extreme right of the 1950s, and it will lead to the same result. They look at anti-Communism and instead of learning that extremism, pushed too far, destroys itself; instead they only learn "anti-Communism was bad" -- which, of course, it wasn't, when it was actually needed.

The Left exposes its raw hatred of democracy whenever democracy threatens their hold on power. Don't like the fact that only conservatives seem to be able to find an audience on talk radio? Remove freedom of political speech on talk radio! Don't like the way workers are more and more likely to reject unionization? Take the secret ballot away from them -- but, because Democrats are sure the people are really stupid, call it "The Employee Free Choice Act" and they won't realize they're losing their freedom!

What worries me in all this unrelenting extremism, the relentless move toward ever more ludicrous goals after all the rational ones have been met and the Left is already triumphant, is this: The repugnance most Americans feel toward the anti-democratic, anti-worker demands of the union leaders may lead to damaging some of the hardwon victories of the legitimate union movement.

For instance, the minimum wage is at grave risk. Already it has been allowed to languish to the point where it isn't doing its job -- assuring that anyone who has a fulltime job can actually live on what they're paid. Companies like WalMart have behaved as management inevitably must -- they have won an advantage over their competitors by finding ways to circumvent the minimum wage, and by paying less for labor, they win on price.

There are serious economists who state the obvious -- that the minimum wage "damages" the economy and "eliminates" jobs -- as if it meant we should do something about it -- like get rid of it.

There are many things that "damage" the economy, yet are essential for us to be a decent nation to live in -- like taxes, for instance, and child-labor laws, and compulsory education. The benefits are not measured in money, but in decency and fairness to the weakest among us.

And the charge that the minimum wage "eliminates jobs" is exactly the point -- it eliminates jobs with wages that you can't live on. That was the greatest evil of free market capitalism during the industrial revolution, and the minimum wage guards against it.

What if the next Congress -- the Republican-ruled one that Obama and Pelosi and Reid are working so hard to elect in 2010 -- decides to eliminate or ravage the minimum wage? The general public is likely to ignore -- or react against -- the arguments of the union leadership, because they no longer believe that unions care about the rights of the workers.

Fifty years later, Democrats are still able to invoke the name of McCarthy and trade on the memory of extreme anti-Communism in order to tar their opponents. How long will Republicans be able to invoke the astonishing excesses of the extreme Left to bring ridicule and disgust on the party that embraced these fanatical ideologues?

The Democratic Party, in the name of advancing unions, is helping to weaken them even further; in the name of advancing feminism, helped destroy its further effectiveness; in the name of advancing gay rights, is poised to bring a backlash that will hurt all the homosexuals who are perfectly content with what they've already won.

All because extremists -- and cynical leaders clinging to power -- seem incapable of recognizing when enough is enough.

I'm sure there are pro-union readers who have already sent their hate mail attacking me as an evil scab. But anyone who reads this whole essay knows that I am actually for unions -- more so than the union leaders who are poised to damage them with the lying, anti-worker "Free Choice Act."

Workers need the rights that unions have won for them, including the right to organize when they want to. Won't it be a shame if, by attacking the rights of workers, the union leadership class causes the whole union movement to be perceived as just another conspiracy against working people?

Whether you're a serf to management or to union leaders makes little difference to the serf. And the sad thing is that breaking the backs of the unions will probably boost the economy and make everything look better -- for a while -- until management lets us see why we needed unions in the first place. And then we'll have to fight all those battles all over again.

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